Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Christmas Astronomy

The Reflection Nebula, NGC 1435, just because I think it's pretty for this time of year.
In my last Astronomy post, I said that I was going to write about the Christmas Star. This post is about Astronomy, not about religion. Nor does it espouse astrology. Modern Astronomy and astrology no longer have anything to do with one another; but, they did two thousand years ago. What I’m talking about here is archaeoastronomy, the science of astronomy studied in a historical, cultural context. This post is meant only to give you a few facts to think about. When all is said and done, each of us will decide what we wish to believe, regardless of anyone else’s logic. So come along with me as we dig up a few facts.

As a disclaimer, please be aware that, I am simply an amateur astronomer. Yet, although my degrees are not in Astronomy, I do check, and cross check my facts before giving them to you. What I have is an enquiring mind, equipped with a few patches of Velcro for making connections, and a really neat astronomy program called Starry Night. I highly recommend it if you should have a desire to feel totally superior, or even better yet... simply have some fun. It’s economical, easy to use, educational, and extremely entertaining. How can you lose?

Now, let’s get serious about Christmas Astronomy. The years 7 to 2 BC contained the some of the most spectacular astronomical displays ever. So let’s look at a few of them.

To get a proper appreciation for the “Astronomical Event” which has come to be known as the Christmas Star, we have to go back at least 2,500 years. We have to put ourselves into the minds of the people of the times. All ancient people studied the stars, and had been doing so for thousands of years. The one “possible” exception was the Jews, who were forbidden to use divination (Deuteronomy 18:10). Ancient people, everywhere, believed that destinies were foretold, and messages from the gods were announced by the stars in the heavens. Everyone, who was anyone, had their special constellation, star, and advisor.

At that time, there was no difference between an astrologer and an astronomer. Almost no decision was made without first consulting the handy-dandy court astrologer/astronomer - who also just happened to be the most highly educated guy around. With your future on the line, you wanted your best man on the job. This is very important, so put it in your trivia bag. We'll get back to it. The caveat was in the interpretation; and, of course, who was paying. Sometimes the astrologer/astronomer hit the jackpot, and sometimes he crapped out. Under the latter circumstances, as you can imagine, life expectancies were... dubious, at best.

In Astronomy, there is something called Precession. It is rather like a super calendar. The Earth wobbles on its axis like a top, and one wobble lasts about 27,000 years. Divide that by twelve and name each section after the sign of the zodiac in which the Sun rises on the vernal (spring) equinox, and you have the Age du jour. Two thousand years ago the Age of Aries was coming to an end, and the Age of Pisces was just beginning. However, because of the slow motion of the Earth in its wobble, and because of the lack of known boundaries of zodiacal constellations, it’s somewhat difficult (read: impossible) to establish the precise date of the beginning of the Piscean Age. But... everybody was looking for CHANGE!

In astrology, there are four Royal Stars, fixed roughly equally along the general course of the ecliptic, or path of the Sun. They are: Antares in Scorpio; Fomalhaut in the Southern Fish; Aldebaran in Taurus; and Regulus, the king of all the Royal Stars, in Leo, and incidentally the only one of the Royal Stars to be directly on the ecliptic. Perhaps that is why he got to be king! Your guess is as good as mine.

The planets were considered to be wandering gods, and Jupiter was the king of these wanderers, and carried the Hebrew name of Sedeq or “Righteousness.” Saturn was the next mightiest, and according to some sources, was known as the “protector of the Jews”. The thing is that Jupiter and Saturn were the astrological “big men on campus.” Where a planet hung out and with whom, had great portent for lowly mortals. Consider for a moment the international attention paid to the conjunction of Venus, Jupiter, and the Moon earlier this month, or the millennium... or even better yet, the daily astrology column of the local newspaper, and you get the idea. People were expecting...

In 12 BC, Halley’s Comet was visible. Ooooo, ominous! Still, it stirred people up. Lots of things were happening in the heavens, and people like the excitement.

In 7 BC, Jupiter and Saturn had triple conjunctions in Chez Pisces. This is a very rare event. For the two greatest planets to have, not just one, but three conjunctions (within one year) in the house of the new age was indicative of GREAT CHANGE. From time to time, Venus and Mercury also dropped in. By the spring of 6 BC, Mars had joined the party, adding more weight to the degree of changes to come. Astrologers all over the known world were looking for something BIG to happen.

8/01/3 BC: Jupiter rose in the east, en te anatole, “in the first rays of the dawn.”
9/12/3 BC: First Jupiter and Regulus occulting conjunction: rising in the east and visible from 0230 until just before sunrise.
2/18/2 BC: Second Jupiter and Regulus conjunction: visible with full Moon from 1900 until 0530
5/7/2 BC: Third Jupiter and Regulus conjunction: visible after sunset, until 2400.
6/17/2 BC: Jupiter and Venus spectacular conjunction in Leo.
8/27/2 BC: Jupiter, Venus, Mars and Mercury conjunction in the east, just before dawn in Virgo. This places the Sun also in Virgo. Two days later the Moon joined the party.
10/13/2 BC: Jupiter and Venus have a close conjunction in Virgo and Jupiter moves westward in relation to the Sun and other planets.
12/15/2 BC: Jupiter reaches its furthest point westward, no longer moving against the background stars, and appears to stand still for almost a month. Just before dawn, is on the meridian due south of Jerusalem, in line with Bethlehem.
12/25/2 BC: Winter Solstice and Hanukkah.

Now, this is where is the significance of that “most highly educated” comment, which I told you to put into your trivia bag, comes in. Any ancient, who was a serious astrologer/astronomer, would have been familiar with the prophetic writings of a multitude of countries. For centuries, the Ancient Jews had prophecies, recorded in their sacred writings, of the coming of a chosen King. The most well known of these, Daniel 9:26-27, indicated that 3 to 2 BC was the time for the appearance of their Messiah. However, the Jews were not the only ones who had similar predictions recorded in their sacred scriptures. The Zoroastrians of Persia also had predictions of a coming Savior King in their bible, the Avesta. And the Avesta prophesied that there would be born to the Jews a King Messiah, and that His coming would be announced by a sign in the constellation Virgo. The world was certainly looking for CHANGE. They had the SIGNS!

All stellar and planetary positions were verified with Starry Night Bundle Edition 2.1 and Starry Night CSAP. For more on the Christmas Star, you might enjoy The Christmas Star by Barry Setterfield.

I hope that you have enjoyed this, and will want to do further research. May the Spirit of the Star of Bethlehem shine upon you and your home all year long.

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Heather said...

That was so freakin' cool! Thanks, Frances!

Happy Holidays!

Frances said...

Merry Christmas Heather! I am so glad that you liked the post. Your guest blog at DEAR AUTHOR was awesome. :-) Thank you for that.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting exposition, Frances.
I don't know if you corrected the calendar reckoning (Gregorian vs Julian vs Greco-Roman)?
There's also considerable thought that the later church simply co-opted the existing winter solstice celebrations.
Here are some interesting websites:

Why do we celebrate December 25 as Jesus’ birthday?
Early Christians did not know the birth date so they adopted and converted a pagan holiday, the birthday of Sol Invictus, the Unconquerable Sun. As I explain in the book it was not the Roman Saturnalia that was converted into Christmas, but the birthday of the pagan sun god. (p. 55-57)"

Cheers, JenD

Anonymous said...

Here's another good website

Cheers, JenD

Frances said...

Hi JenD!

Wonderful to see you here. I'm so glad that you came. Yes, I did make corrections for the calendars in use then, and subsequently. LOL, I knew someone was going to catch that one and thought that I had better be prepared. *G*

I read the articles which you mention, and thought that they were great. I didn't delve deeply into the Early Church because there is so much written and all I wanted to do was to chronicle a series of events without any reference to opinions. A lot of controversy is attached to whether or not people believe ancient sources that can involve hearsay. There is no controversy about star positions. I hate controversy!

Laurie said...

Frances, what a fabulous post and so perfect for the season. Loved the photo and the links too. I'm going to have to print this and add it to my resource binder. The mixing of fact, myth and belief is always a powerful combination for a writer.

Merry Christmas.

Frances said...

Thank you Laurie. That's high praise considering the kind of information yoy include on your blog. Merry Christmas. You've made my day. :-D